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To Age or Not to Age

When you think of drinking wine at the appropriate age, what picture comes to mind? Usually it is a red wine. Maybe a decanter is involved? It’s a special occasion or with friends and family. However, not all wine is designed to age a long time. I have heard so many stories of people saving a bottle of wine that they were given as a gift only to open it at some far later date to be absolutely horrified by what they smelled and tasted in the bottle. I’ll tell you a secret. Most wine is not meant to age beyond 1-2 years. However I will also tell you that you can probably figure out what type you are dealing with if you understand a bit about what makes wine appropriate to age.

How Do Wines Age? 

Wines age quite a lot like humans do. They go through a youthful phase, the prime of middle age, and the elegant sunset of old age. A youthful wine will still have bright fruit aromas, called primary aromas, and a core color without any browning leaving pure lemon-green in white wines and purple, sometimes blue, hues in red wines on the rim of the wine. Wines in middle age are known as having developing aromas. This is when the primary aromas start to be complemented (or not) by secondary aromas from the winemaking process such as oak spice or toast from lees as well as the beginning of bottle age aromas. The bottle age aromas are called tertiary aromas and usually show up in Cabernet as dried figs, nutty characters, or cedar characters. Each variety has its own tertiary aroma signature as it ages. Wines in middle age often start to show a browning on the rim which translates as gold in white wines or garnet in red wines. Wines coming to the end of their age cycle will be largely defined by their tertiary aromas with the rare exceptions of truly amazing wines which may still hint at the primary fruit of their youth. White wines of this level will likely be quite gold edging towards amber colored while red wines are fully garnet with tawny colored rims. This cycle’s timing depends on the wine and its key components which help the aging process. What are these key components? Tannin, acid, and sugar.  

Tannin

What is tannin? Tannin is an antioxidant compound found naturally in grapes and these compounds are transferred into the wine during the fermentation process. White wines have very little to no tannin which is why it is usually red wines that come to mind when one thinks of long term aging. Tannin naturally protects the wine from oxygen, which as a wine ages becomes more detrimental to wine quality. Wines with high levels of natural tannin are better prepared to withstand these effects of aging. Just like sunscreen protects us from the UV rays of the sun, the tannins protect the wine from oxygen thus slowing its maturation and allowing it to age more slowly. The higher the level of natural tannin, the more intense the protection which is why Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo age so well. How does this explain how Pinot Noir, a relatively low tannin variety, ages so well? Keep reading…

Acid

Like Tannin, acid is a key component of aging. A low pH coming from high acid levels contributes to the microbial stability of a wine. More importantly it also chemically slows the rate which oxidation reactions can occur which continues to decrease with an increasingly lower pH. Thus wines with low pHs age more slowly and have an increased life span than wines with higher pHs if all other components are equal. Low pHs are one of the main reasons that Rieslings and Hunter Valley Semillons age so well in addition to low tannin reds such as Pinot Noir. They are low in tannin but relatively low in pH which allows them to age more slowly.

Sugar

High levels of sugar are very helpful to aging. This comes down to osmotic pressure. What is osmotic pressure? Say you have a yeast cell. That yeast cell has a very low level of sugar inside it. Then you put it in an environment that is very high sugar. Cells naturally want to create an equilibrium between the inside and the solution that surrounds them. All the water rushes out of the cell and poof! No more yeast cell. The high level of sugar (plus pH as mentioned above) protects the wine from refermentation. A lack of microbial activity increases a wine’s ability to age further. Now when we say high sugar we are not talking about White Zin which usually runs around 26-35 grams per Liter. We are talking 80+ grams per Liter of sugar. For reference, Sodas can run a little over 100 grams per Liter. However, sugar alone will not help a wine. It needs to be sugar plus a low pH on a top quality wine. Think Botrytis affected wines such as Sauternes, Tokaji, or Trockenbeerenauslese. Icewines also benefit from this protection.  

Wines at least two of the above three components will have a better chance of long term aging success than wines with only one or none of the above. That being said, the wine needs to be a style which will improve or get more interesting with age. Varieties such as Muscato really benefit from being youthful when consumed so they should be enjoyed while still fresh and fruity. However, if you happen to like the characters of 10 year old Muscat then that’s great! Drink wines when you want to enjoy them, in whatever stage of life they may be. Don’t wait for the perfect moment when that moment may be now if that is when you want to drink that special bottle.

How old is your oldest bottle of wine? Tell me in the comments.

Originally written for and posted on Snooth.com

The Top Essential Tools of the Professional Winemaker – 2016 Update

I originally did this post back in 2010 and decided it would be fun to see if the same tools were needed.  I feel sometimes that I get caught up in working and doing my job that I forget there are rather interesting things that I absolutely can not make wine without (outside of the obvious grapes or barrels) that most of the non-winemaking public would scratch their head over.  Here is my updated 2016 version!

7) Frequent Flier Programs

Now that I am flying a TON more than I used to, I am pretty attached to my Mileage Plus account with United.  All the checked bag fees waived and time saved going through security is very helpful and helps me get on to my next destination be it China, California, or back home to New York.

6) Even More Calendars!

I know what you’re thinking.  In today’s era of technology why would anyone still need a paper calendar?  I used to have two, plus my Outlook calendar.  Now that I have direct reports, I have three.  Two full year calendars (one for me and one for the entire department including Kosher holidays!). Then there is the Monthly calendar showing holidays, major meetings, or short day trips.  I use my Outlook calendar for the daily stuff, meetings, tastings, etc.  Call my OCD but its how my life works.

5) Colored Highlighters

I have different 8 colored highlighters.  They are great when you have your list together and are coming up with a blending plan.  You can show similar colors going together.  You can highlight different analysis that may need attention.  You can make different colors show up on your abovementioned calendars to denote days out of office and why.  There are so many uses for colored highlighters in the winery!  This can also be transferred over to colored dry erase markers for a tank board to show wines going through ML, filtered wines, fermentations, and different vintages.  We’re very visual beings and being able to visually organize your life makes issues easier to spot and fix.

4) Clipboards

Clipboards are still important but have become far less important than in previous years.  I’m down to one on a regular basis but this one is rarely out of my hand and contains my daily to do list plus notes from meetings and things to follow up on.   They are great for carrying around the cellar to write on.

3) Whiteboards

How did I get along without whiteboards?  I have three and they are amazing.  I have two small ones to track things that need to be done and one large one to track things I have completed from the list on the two smaller ones plus all incoming bulk shipments into the winery.  Long story short, I love them and am not letting them go!

2) Excel Spreadsheets

I can safely say that I am completely hooked on spreadsheets.  My Christmas list is now in Excel format, not to mention all of my wine blends.  They are super convenient because you can plug in theoretical blends and analysis and get an idea of where your wine will end up analytically.  This doesn’t take the place of trial blends put together on a counter top but it sure does help when you’re trying to tweak the analysis numbers in a wine a bit.  You can also sort lot lists by just about anything that one may need to sort for which is so much faster than trying to make a new list by hand all the time.

1) Wineglass

Still number one! One cannot make wine without using a wineglass.  We carry them around in the cellar, in the lab, have them sitting on our desks.  You really can’t make any winemaking decision without a wineglass.  The wine MUST be looked at, smelled, tasted, and considered fully before any of the above tools can assist you going forward.  If you catch a winemaker out at dinner and their water glass is even close to the shape of a wine glass they will undoubtedly subconsciously swirl it and sniff at some point.  We’re just that used to having one around us at all times.

To my winemaking colleagues, did I miss anything?  Feel free to add to the list!